The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001, by Liam Harte, Palgrave Macmillan, 301 pp, £55, ISBN: 978-1403949875.
The impulse to recount one’s life story, with all the twists and turns that chance inevitably throws up, is a powerful one and a defining feature of late modernity. The construction and articulation of self-identity is what makes us unique as individuals in the face of a homogeneous and globalised culture. In many ways, we resemble stage actors, employing roles, props and lines as we invent – and constantly reinvent – a version of our “self” for wider consumption to different and ever-changing audiences.1 We present our lives in very particular ways, as much for our own sense of who we are and where we have come from as for the consumption of others. Such tales combine fact and fiction, achievement and aspiration, success and failure.
The in trays of publishers are reportedly stuffed with ideas for memoirs and autobiographies. Mercifully, only a minuscule proportion of these ever make it to the bookshelves. Unless you are a “celebrity” or have undertaken some great feat of human endeavour it is likely that few people beyond your immediate circle will view your life story with anything more than utter indifference. Autobiographies, however, can make for good business. The non-fiction bestseller lists are dominated by celebrity memoirs and ghost-written autobiographies. It seems that the reading public has an insatiable thirst for first-hand accounts, whether they be stories of rags to riches or just riches to even more riches. Few Irish autobiographies can match the commercial success of Frank McCourt’s Angela Ashes, whatever questions might be raised about its historical accuracy or indeed its sentimentalism.2 No wonder former politicians, sports stars and other celebrities tend to develop a literary bent. Selling your story – or at least, selling a sanitised and particular version of that story – can be a lucrative business.
Such grubby concerns thankfully did not influence the production of the accounts collected in this valuable anthology of over sixty autobiographies of the Irish in Britain from 1725 until 2001, collected and edited by Liam Harte, in what must, given that it is a time-consuming and labour intensive process, have been a labour of love. Lacking the success or glamour of their counterparts in North America or Australia, Irish exiles in Britain were traditionally seen as an unfortunate by-product of the great waves of emigration from Ireland. They were poor, uneducated and stuck in a time-warp of victimhood and self-pity, an embarrassment to the Irish “nation”. One sociologist recounted how after the Second World War the Irish bourgeoisie saw expatriate communities in Britain as “a kind of vast Irish slum where none of the better people went, not even on holidays”.3 This anthology challenges such stereotypes.
Here we have the great and the good, including extracts from WB Yeats, Sean O’Casey, William Trevor and even Bob Geldof. But there are also selections from the classics of Irish migrant autobiography, such as Patrick McGill’s Children of the Dead End, Michael MacGowan’s The Hard Road to Klondike and Dónall MacAmhlaigh’s An Irish Navvy. Harte has searched far and wide and includes numerous lesser known autobiographies, ranging from the quirky account of pick-pocketing by Ellen O’Neill to the life story of the Scottish-Irish activist Matt McGinn.
A number of these accounts are heavily mediated works of self-presentation by gifted writers: Roy Foster, for instance, describes Yeats’s autobiography as a piece of “heroic self-construction” in which he “painted many layers over the portrait of himself as a young man”.4 Elizabeth Bowen offers a sensitive set of reflections on her uneasy existence in the overlapping worlds of London, Dublin and rural Cork: this was characterised by the sense of being an outsider in Ireland as a member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, yet equally an outsider in England. This theme of dislocation dominated her fictional writings. Other well-known writers such as Louis MacNeice, born in Belfast and raised in Carrickfergus yet destined to spend his life in England, captured the feeling of acute displacement, of living in between two worlds. MacNeice wrote to a friend in 1948 that “I wish one could either live in Ireland or feel oneself in England”. Professional writers could express this sense of dislocation in a poignant way since they had the tools to do so. The extracts from John Healy, George O’Brien, John Walsh and William Trevor similarly offer multi-layered and complex assessments of what Harte terms the “dualities” of the Irish experience in Britain. They were neither Irish nor British, located at this ambiguous crossroads between two quite distinct cultures.
Most of the extracts presented here cannot, however, be regarded as sophisticated works of literature, and indeed this is one of the great merits of the anthology. Harte gives plenty of space to the migrant who, for one reason or another, decided that their life story was worth chronicling. Some of these are highly stylised accounts of the “my fight for Irish freedom” type, with a natural emphasis on the British dimension of Irish nationalist movements. The extracts from the reasonably well-known autobiographies of John Denvir (a nationalist activist in later nineteenth-century Liverpool) and James Mullin (a Tyrone-born doctor living in Cardiff who was involved with Irish nationalist politics for over twenty-five years) are typical of this genre.
Perhaps the most fascinating is Francis Fahy’s little known memoir of the Southwark Irish Literary Club in the 1880s, the precursor of the more famous Irish Literary Society, established in 1892. Here we get an insight into the inchoate cultural nationalism that developed in Irish London, with an impressive roll call of speakers that included Yeats, Charles Gavan Duffy and Justin McCarthy (the parliamentarian whose autobiography also features). Fahy’s first-hand account conveys the initial excitement that surrounded this coming together of Irish writers, artists and language enthusiasts in the metropolis. Other gems in the anthology include extracts from Paddy “The Cope” Gallagher’s account of life in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century, Michael Stapleton’s painful acknowledgement that Ireland was no longer “home”, and Elaine Cowley’s lively and revealing narrative of her stay in wartime Britain.
Harte has selected a wide range of extracts to represent the diverse experiences, backgrounds and outlooks of the Irish in Britain. One of the more striking conclusions that can be drawn is that for some of the authors, such as the Victorian writer and women’s rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe, an Irish birthplace seems to have been of little consequence, after she had left the country at the age of thirty-five. For others, being Irish in Britain dominated everyday interactions and served as the defining feature of self-identity. Sean MacStiofáin, whose Irish ethnicity was according to Harte “based on a lone great-grandparent”, became a prominent leader of the IRA in the 1960s and early 1970s. Cathal Goulding, once a brother-in-arms and later an opponent, said of him that he was “continually trying to prove that he is as much an Irishman as anyone else”.4 The dissonance between narrow definitions of Irishness based on birthplace and broader interpretations centred on ethnic descent was a tension in the complicated relationship between the homeland and the diaspora. Nowhere was this chasm better exposed than in the extended stays of second- and third-generation Irish children back in Ireland. In the extract from John Healy’s fascinating autobiography, The Grass Arena, we get a sense of these cultural encounters, when he was told by local children in Sligo, “Go back to England, John Bull.”.
While Irish identity was clearly malleable and was as much to do with experience as birthplace, the image of Britain that emerges in Harte’s anthology is an unexpectedly timeless one. Given that enormous changes have occurred in the construction and representation of British identity over the three centuries covered in this volume, Harte might have selected more extracts that uncovered first-hand impressions which might have illustrated these – developments such as the Labour Party’s emphasis on social inequality (the party had substantial Irish support from the 1920s), the development of the welfare state in the 1940s and, most significantly, the arrival of other newcomers, from Eastern European Jews in the 1880s and 1890s to South Asian and Caribbean migrants in the 1950s and 1960s. Even as early as the 1870s, as David Fitzpatrick has observed, “Irish and British workers found some common ground in their shared fear and dislike of Jewish immigration”, as the exiles of Erin “enjoyed a shove up the ladder of civilisation”5. These momentous changes radically altered the ways in which the Irish were seen, and how they saw themselves. Some extracts, such as those from John Walsh’s memoir The Falling Angels, touch on these complicated questions. As Britain emerged as a multi-ethnic society, attitudes towards the Irish were transformed.
The other conspicuous silence within the collection is any sustained discussion of the effects of the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland on the Irish in Britain from the 1970s onwards, apart from a brief discussion in Walsh’s memoir. There is strong and compelling evidence from local histories and sociological studies that during the 1970s and 1980s anti-Irish prejudice and discrimination were defining features of the everyday experiences of the working class Irish in Britain. These ranged from low-level intimidation in the form of apparently “harmless” jokes to more serious physical attacks. “Keeping your head down” was a sensible strategy in the context of IRA bombing campaigns and vilification in the right-wing tabloid press.6
This absence underlines one of the weaknesses of Harte’s focus on autobiography as opposed to other forms of personal testimony, like oral history. Carefully crafted works of literature that explore themes of self-representation can indeed capture “the complex, multi-dimensional nature of historical reality”, yet they represent only a partial dimension of the range of the everyday experiences of any social group. They can lack the vitality and intimacy of the spoken word. And Harte has little to say in his valuable introduction about other possible approaches to recovering the lived experience of the Irish in Britain, despite the existence of a number of valuable collections of oral histories.7 Certainly these could not qualify as literature in any sense, though their raw nature can serve as a counterweight to the stylised autobiographies that Harte has analysed with such care.
A wider issue with the organisation of this anthology is the decision to include a large number of short extracts. Autobiographies rely on the development of some degree of empathy between the author and the reader. By selecting only a short taster of what is often a book-length account, the reader is left feeling short-changed. Just as you are beginning to get a sense of an individual, whether they are reflective, pompous, self-regarding, defensive or engaging, the extract comes to an abrupt end. What seems a shortcoming may well be paradoxically a strength. Harte’s selection leaves you wanting to know more. Few, however, will seek out the originals, since they are not widely available.
Those concerned with the complex mosaic of the Irish migrant experience will have reservations about the reliance on what are inherently subjective and personal accounts, as Harte readily acknowledges. The Irish population in Britain throughout this period was predominantly proletarian, and only a tiny number will ever have felt the need to record their stories. The heavy concentration on creative writers, activists of different hues and others who deemed themselves worthy of a place in history creates a different picture from the stereotypical one of the Irish navvy or nurse. How accurate a representation this is of the “multi-layered social realities and changing self-consciousness of the Irish in Britain over a period of three centuries” is naturally open to debate. What can be said is that this anthology tells us how sixty-three very different people who were born in Ireland, or had Irish ancestors, understood their lives at different points in time.
At times, the writing style in the introduction or brief prefaces to individual extracts can be too heavily reliant on the dense vocabulary of literary theory, or “jargon” as George Orwell called it. For instance, only on multiple rereadings of this sentence about George O’Brien’s three volumes of autobiography will the intended meaning be decoded: “Writing out of a peculiar, depleted subjectivity, he presents emigration as an opportunity for further self-improvisation rather than a threat to the integrity of self and the fealty to origins”.
Harte’s achievement in putting together this anthology is all the more impressive given that he has made this subject of Irish migrant autobiography more or less his own. Historians and other scholars have consulted many of the published works and some of the unpublished accounts that he includes, but without the critical dimension and sharp insights that he brings to the study of this literature. By drawing our attention to these neglected autobiographies and memoirs, he also reminds us that the canon of Irish literature should be expanded to include the lesser known autobiographical work of migrants. In doing so, he has opened up new ways of looking at the Irish diaspora by seeking to recover how people made sense of their exile, dislocation and displacement. In restoring human experience to the centre of the story of Irish emigration, this volume will encourage others to seek out personal accounts of what it meant for individuals to be Irish, either at home, abroad or some indeterminate place between these worlds.
1. Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Cambridge, 1991); Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (New York, 1959).
2. RF Foster, The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it up in Ireland (London, 2001), pp 164-86.
3. Liam Ryan, “Irish Emigration to Britain since World War II”, in Richard Kearney (ed), Migrations: The Irish at Home and Abroad (Dublin, 1990), p 50.
4. RF Foster, W. B. Yeats: A Life, I: The Apprentice Mage, 1865-1914 (Oxford, 1997), p. xxv.
5. Quoted in Sean Swan, “MacStiofáin, Sean (1928–2001)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition, Oxford University Press, January 2005, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/75880, accessed May 19th, 2009]
6. David Fitzpatrick, “The Irish in Britain, 1871-1921”, in WE Vaughan (ed), A New History of Ireland, VI: Ireland Under the Union, II (1870-1921) (Oxford, 1996), p 688.
7. Mary Hickman and Bronwen Walter, Discrimination and the Irish Community in Britain (London, 1997)
8. See, for example, Anne Lynch (ed), The Irish in Exile: Stories of Emigration (London, 1988); Pam Schweitzer (ed), Across the Irish Sea (2nd ed., London, 1991); Mary Lennon, Marie McAdam and Joanne O’Brien, Across the Water: Irish Women’s Lives in Britain (London, 1988).
Enda Delaney teaches history at the University of Edinburgh. His latest book is The Irish in Post-war Britain (Oxford University Press, 2007).